Friday, May 27, 2005

What do gedolim know about women- a response to Mrs. Toby Katz

Mrs. Toby Katz, over at Crosscurrents, makes the claim that gedolim(the great decisors of the generation) understand women and women's concerns. She answers the question of:

regarding the tendency of some in feminist quarters to question the ability of “the rabbis” to evince sufficient empathy for female concerns….

with this statement

The notion that only blacks can understand blacks, only women can understand women, and so on, undercuts the bedrock of our common humanity.

Gedolim rise to an exceptionally high level of refinement, but all humans who are sufficiently mature and intelligent can understand the feelings of other humans.


An understanding or a response to women can be either on a personal level, or on a policy/communal level. She and some of the other CC bloggers bring nice stories about the personal kindness and generosity of some gedolim. This personal concern for a fellow human being reflects kindness, concern for others, charity and other middot tovot(good traits). However, being nice to people, women included, is different from recognizing problems that are unique to women as a group of people. For example, many people, faced with a demonstrably poor person will give the person money, or help him. It is(I hope) human nature to do so. And, it is only some change, or a few dollars. But how many then go on vote against increasing taxes to help the poor? or give large amounts of money to a faceless organization that will provide better housing for the poor? There are two differences: With one there is a name and a face on the problem, and it is a personal issue related to that one person. With the other there is no one face to the problem, and it is not a personal issue, it is a societal issue unique to one set of societies members. There is a big difference between being nice to a person who shows an obvious need(one which you yourself probably has had, or can imagine yourself having) and understanding the needs of a group of people that you have been shielded from for the majority of your life.


I posted a response noting that male members of the Chareidi community have limited to no interactions with members of the opposite sex except for their immediate family, and their wife. However, Mrs. Katz maintains that the gedolim understand the needs of women. How do they obtain this understanding? A number of possibilites occur to me:

1. By being a gadol, one axiomatically understands the needs of all. This is a bit mystical and since we require proof of miricles, we will put this claim to the side for know.

2. One can only be a gadol if one understands the needs of others. In other words, understanding the needs of women is a criteria for being acclaimed a gadol. Is this in operation? It seems to me that the gedolim are more noted for learning and paskening and PERSONAL middot, than for learning the issues relating to women. We have instances of gedolim who did not suffer fools lightly. Not to be critical, but would they have been less than awesome in the middot of pity or concern for others?

3. Gedolim understand women through their vast learning of Tanach, Shas and Poskim. Obviously, one criteria for being a gadol is tremendous knowledge. However, are women only the sum total of what is written about them in Shas and Poskim? Are men? Can one understand and relate to either sex if all they have is our mesora, but limited to no personal experience?

My answer to that question is a paraphrase(I forgot the author): I truly believe that all knowledge is to be found in the Torah, but that we do not know how to find it all. Even knowledge of plumbing can be found, if one is on a deep enough level. However, until we have reached that level, when I need plumbing work, I will call a plumber.

The proof in the lack of understanding on the part of contemporary gedolim of women's issues is in the posters that went up last year requesting women to leave shul early so as not to have mingling of the sexes after davening. Mrs. Katz, are you leaving shul early? Do you think that the gedolim who signed this understand your desire to daven? to attend shul? If they do, they felt the possibility of your mingling with men was far more dangerous than the benefit to you of finishing davening. Have you asked a gadol how he can accept the instances of heter meah rabbonim that have been increasing? Why they have not put a stop to it? put the perpetrators in cherem?

One of course could argue that the gedolim understand the women's issues in their community- which is the very chareidi one. However, what about the issues of a more moderate chareidi woman? Or the Modern Orthodox? Where can the understanding end?

Comments-[ comments.]

23 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is it possible that 30-40 years as a communal leader interacting with all of the community and its problems gives you an insight? You seem to have left that out and I am curious why.

Either way, to oppose Mrs. Katz and say that only women can truly Pasken failry for women is to make a sexist statement that women think or perceive the world differently than men. I happen to believe that and have no problem asserting that and accepting it as the reason why Judaism appoints the men as Dayanim and Poskim. In fact, to argue that a woman would come to a different conclusion is to support my point. Maybe Judaism is better served by men who are by nature less prone to emotional response. (Yes, I know there are exceptions...)

This is not to say that there arent Rabonim who are out of touch with women and their needs. There are plenty, but your post seems to posit a blanket rule that due to their lack of exposure, it is impossible to be honest and fair with womens issues, I disagree.

5:49 PM  
Blogger dilbert said...

My point was only that the statement that "gedolim understand women's issues" was not axiomatically correct. I am not saying that women need to be dayanim. There are certainly ways to learn to understand the issues affecting women without being one. Usually by interacting with them, talking to them, etc.

I am not sure how much interaction a Chareidi rabbi has with women over the course of his career. probably just the extent of women asking questions. Does the rabbi ever have a long talk with a women who is not his wife or mother/sister? I dont think that saying good shabbos qualifies as a significant interaction from which one can learn what someone feels.

I am not advocating women being daynim because men cant understand them. I am questioning the belief that all(most) gedolim understand womens' issues

6:17 PM  
Blogger dilbert said...

By the way, according to R. Aharon Feldman, women do think differently than men, which is why they should not be taught talmud. See his letters to the editor in Tradition a few years ago.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

I've neverunderstood why Rabbis think they understand women's issues.
Even a perfunctory survey of Orthodox responsa on women's issues shows that the standard response is along the lines of "Feminism is an attempt to discredit Judaism, and therefore is pasul by definition."

There are so many great books out there that could show these rabbis how women really think and how wrong they are.

The main reason rabbis dont understand how women think is that they don't make any effort to try to understand. Why? I think, perhaps, it is not important to them.

7:16 AM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

A good example of this... although there is no paucity of examples is this... by Rabbi Mayer Twesky.

http://www.torahweb.org/torah/special/2003/rtwe_JA_women.html

When he writes "Feminism, by contrast, axiomatically asserts that men and women must be offered identical roles and opportunities." it is a clear sign that he doesn't know much about it. Yes, liberal feminism does say things like this. But not all feminists do. There is no one voice for feminism. Orthodox feminists come in all shapes and sized.

If Rabbis are going to give answers, then the least they could do is to understand the questions properly.


There is considerable irony in the fact that he writes this "Rampant, misleading rhetoric has confused the contemporary debate on Orthodoxy and feminism and camouflaged the core issue" only a few lines before writing this "Case in point: do we presumptuously challenge the provision which disqualifies women from positions of formal religious authority and demand the ordination of women, or do we unqualifiedly submit to halachah and intensify our efforts to appreciate, internalize, and implement its norms and values?"

7:20 AM  
Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

See my comments on Bloghead re this issue. I would distinguish between the all male atmosphere of the yeshiva world and the fact that Gdolim become Gdolim by virtue of their Lomdus and Tzidkus. Certainly, neither RYBS,RMF nor RSZA refrained from answering very difficult questions that were posed to them by both men and women.

IMO, this statement ascribes truth to much of the feminist critique against halacha-a charge that RYBS described as "sheer libel" during the heyday of the radical feminist critique of halacha-the early 70s.

11:27 PM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

Steve,
Please can you post a link to your bloghead comments? Thanks.

Can you also explain why RYBS called the feminist critique sheer libel? Or is there anywhere where he explains this stance?

I always feel that a "no" from someone who understands the question is much more palatable than a "no" from someone who has no idea.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous mycroft said...

See my comments on Brizel in Bloghead. It does not necessarily follow that if Gdolim are picked because of Lomdus and Tzidkus they can understand any specific problem. I believe Gdolim also have the ability to solve and understand problems. Otherwise a Gadol could be a frum computer. Lomdus and Tzidkus are a necessary condition to be a gadol but not a sufficient condition to the making of a gadol.

6:18 AM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

no disrespect mycroft, but I don't really care if the person who gives the answer is considered a godol or considered to be a total nobody. What matters to me is that the person making the decision is making the right decisions.

the game of "who is the right gadol" is very tiresome. we spend ages arguing over which godol to listen to. nobody ever bothers to think about the merits of the case.

if your gdolim have the ability and are willing to solve problems, then let them. if not, can they please admit it, go away and let the rest of us get on with it?

6:58 AM  
Anonymous mycroft said...

keevei beten: On a trivial sense what is important that the right decision is made. In any legal system the correct legal decision is hopefully made by those who understand the legal system, understand the facts and have integrity.
But the question is what is the right decision-IMO the right decision is what competent halachik experts decide. If debateable follow ones own Rabbi.

8:21 AM  
Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

Whew! Finally back on. Why not switch to Haloscan. Far easier on the blogging masses.

Someone asked when and where RYBS described the feminist critique as "sheer libel." In 1972 and 195, RYBS spoke about Korach and on gerus to the RCA and the RIETS alumni. RYBS was adamant on both occassions in stating that man and woman were created in the equal image of G-d, albeit with different functions. RYBS maintained that the feminist critque essentially was a critique on the entirely different functions of Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, etc , all of which had zero to do with the spiritual value. RYBS pointed out that the same psulei edus that the feminists were railing against also applied to the Melech Moshiach. RYBS also stated that the essence of the feminist critique was an attack on the Mesorah of Torah SheBaal Peh from the POV of common sense. Both of these shiurim are available from R Milton Nordlicht who has a wide collection of shiurim and drashos from RYBS, RHS, and many other Talmidei Chachamim.

Mykroft claimed on Blioghead that there is evidence that RYBS may have approved of WTGs. Without revisiting the issue of who is a Talmid Muvhak of RYBS, I agree to disagree and I stand by the written word and many public statements of RHS on this issue.

I also think that Lomdus and Tzikus are absolute minimum requirements for a Posek.However, I would also agree that a Gadol must have outside experts to whom he refers issues and the willingness to consult with chaverim who are on the same level on issues where he is unsure. Look at the issues of Mesorah wherein you will see letters from RHS to R Y Belsky and other Poskim on a wide variety of issues. In ShuT Minchas Shlomoh, RSZA has letters to the CI and RMF and many other Poskim on a wide range of issues. RMF also corresponded with a range of other Gdolim. More importantly,RSZA and RMF both sought the expertise of experts whose resdidence was elsewhere than a Beis Medrash such as scientists and medical experts on many cutting edge issues.In contrast, there is as least one rav in EY who has written a teshuvah on DNA without being aware of the metzius of DNA.

9:05 PM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

steve - many thanks. it is clearly a good thing that rabbis see the need to understand the issues and get outside help... but it seems that you only mean on 'factual' matters, not on ethical issues.
feminism is derided as being anti-jewish... should it be that way?
shouldnt there be consultation with outside moral experts too?

mycroft - how can you say that it is trivial that the right decision gets made? Is the suffering of agunot trivial because big rabbis made the decision? Is not serving in the israeli army trivial becoz rabbis said so? I really don't understand that statement.

1:43 AM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

what i mean is that you don't always get the right decision if the right person is making it.
People are always fallible.

I don't think even Moshe Rabbeinu thought he had all the answers all the time... so why would you think even the generations greatest gadol does?

We make people into gods and it is really destructive... either they start to believe it... or we forget that they aren't and don't question when we should.

7:20 AM  
Anonymous mycroft said...

Brizel:Re your 905 PM post-I agree with your first paragraph.
Re 2nd Paragraph where did RYBS specifically write or speak against womens tefillah groups outside of a schul context. BTW I am personally opposed to them on what basis should a frum woman-who has the time to go to a minyan not go when she could at least get a kiyyum from a davar shebkdusha. My question revolves around the Rav's statements -not what I consider good policy.
3rd paragraph-it is essential that the gadol knows the facts-how he gets them is immaterial-BTW it is important for all Rabbonim to know the facts.

7:06 PM  
Anonymous mycroft said...

keevei beten: I should hope that Rabbonim are ethical-those who may not be can cause the biggest chillul hashem. Jewish ethics is developed by getting a sense of what God wants-start with knowledge of halacha, Tanach, Talmud and behavior of those whose lives are immersed in Torah and hopefully ones attempt to be ethical would be better than otherwise.
Not all aspects of feminism are anti-Jewish but to the extent that any ism-capitalism, communism, republicanism, feminism etc conflict with halacha they are anti-Jewish.

7:12 PM  
Anonymous mycroft said...

keevei beten: I did not mean to imply to anyone that it is trivial that the right decision is made-I meant to be clear that it is trivial that the goal is for the right decision to be made. One never knows if the correct decision was made-we are humane-but in good faith one has to rely on the experts for decisions.
I don't believe that anyone ever felt that suffering of agunot is trivial. However it is axiomatic in the halachik system that the Torah is eternal and obviously correct-and there are some very unfortunate side affects to some situations. But if one accepts the Halachik system one must follow halacha in total.
We don't make people into Gods-but we have a system where we listed to authority of the generation that we live in.

7:19 PM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

What I mean is that since even gdolim are human - and therefore will make mistakes...
and since even gdolim can learn from other systems (remember yitro, anyone?) even from -isms...
then perhaps a rabbi will not give the right answer. since we will not know, as you point out, what is 100% the right answer, we can only aspire to getting as right as we can....
and therefore we shouldn't rely on anyone, and we should also be constantly challenging gedolim to show how they are more right than others, and if they are not more right than others... then they should admit it.

1:11 AM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

i.e. they are not right, just by dint of authority.

1:11 AM  
Anonymous mycroft said...

Ke'evei Beten: I agree with most of your 1:11AM posts.
Gdolim are hyman, and as such will make mistakes. People should use relevant information available from any source in making decisions. In any legal system there has to be a final authority-the final authority is intrinsically not infallible but in order to operate society has to follow someone. If we had a Sanhedrin-we would follow that. Since we don't we have this situation where we follow what has been accepted schu lchan aruch abd its commentators. To interpret the law we ask Rabbis-they tend to follow certain experts aka Gdolim.
Just as in American system we follow the judicial system so in Halacha we folllow the halachik system.

4:41 AM  
Anonymous Steve Brizel said...

Mykroft-Iwholeheartedly agree with your comments re the integrity and the necessity to adhere to the halachic system. That's why RYBS and RHS, among many others, call the Mesorah. I am not sure that I have an answer to your question as to where RYBS spoke or wrote against WTGs,except in the Shiurim that I posted.

I think that halacha has to be the first and primary sense of ethics for any Jew, regardless of his or level of observance. That is why R Chaim Brisker opposed the then innovative Mussar movement and why the Noda BiYehudah and the Vilna Gaon opposed Chasidus.


In my posts, I emphasized that the two prerequisites for any Gadol were Lomdus and Tzidus. Obviously, any would be Gadol must know the subject matter-Shas, Poskim, etc and the ins and outs as to what is a real kashe, a real terutz, etc. This would also include the need to obtain expert advice when necessary. Tzidkus means that the Gadol has sterling ethical qualities in the interpersonal realm. This is not an elusive quality. It also does not mean that the Gadol show empathy by adopting a questionnable psak that does violence to the sources. It should be emphasized that a true Gadol will render a psak that is LaMito Shel Torah, regardless of hashkafic differences or influences. In this regard, I would add that each community should direct these issues to the Gdolim in its community that it regularly sends halachic queries and who are Higiah LHoraah. There is no reason why talmidim of RHS or RYSE should send their queries to anyone else

5:06 PM  
Blogger Ke'evei Beten said...

Ok steve and mycroft,

I see what you are saying, that in any legal system there has to be an arbiter..
maybe my problem is with the checks and balances / term of the system....
not enough input from the will of the people?
no accountability of the judges?

if it sounds like I want to make judaism more democratic.. then yeah, that is fair. but is it really such a bad thing?

4:48 AM  
Anonymous huh? said...

"RYBS maintained that the feminist critque essentially was a critique on the entirely different functions of Kohen, Levi, Yisrael, etc , all of which had zero to do with the spiritual value."

the different functions of kohen, levi, yisroel have zero to do with spiritual value? of course they do. this is why the bechorim lost the kehuna due to sins, and why the leviim merited them, etc.

and of course, women's status is in judaism understood as related to chava's sin, and kabbalistically, there is much talk of tikun at the end of days : v'hoyo ohr hal'vana k'ohr hachama, n'keva t'sovev gever, tikri'i ishi v'lo sikri'i li od ba'ali etc etc etc.

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